Photo of a LGBTQ+ pride parade.
Is corporate Pride merch even any good? (Photo by Mercedes Mehling on Unsplash)

Rainbow Capitalism Strikes Again This Pride Month

Every June, corporation after corporation puts out items covered in rainbows and other LGBTQ+ symbols to celebrate Pride Month. But is it just a performative way to make more money?

Thoughts x
Photo of a LGBTQ+ pride parade.

Every June, corporation after corporation puts out items covered in rainbows and other LGBTQ+ symbols to celebrate Pride Month. But is it just a performative way to make more money?

If you’re a part of the LGBTQ+ community, chances are you’ve heard the term rainbow capitalism — a term that describes the act of large companies profiting off of Pride merchandise without actually contributing help to the LGBTQ+ community in any material way. As a transgender bisexual man, I used my “queer eye” to look into three companies I’ve enjoyed in the past by evaluating both their history and products. Definitely check out these products yourself and see what you think — but before you do that, here’s some takes from Study Break’s favorite transgender guy!

Target: 0/10

I’m sorry (no I’m not) but the Target superfans aren’t going to like this one: Don’t buy your Pride merch from Target. Just don’t. As a person mostly interested in the clothing sections of Pride merch collections, I flipped through 101 pieces (mostly rainbow by the way) so you don’t have to, and I’m not impressed, to put it lightly. Just to put in perspective how much rainbow we’re talking here, I counted 82 pieces that incorporate mainly the gay pride flag, compared to the following numbers for other flags: two nonbinary, one asexual, three bisexual, two pansexual, one lesbian and nine transgender. There were pieces that incorporated all of the flags into its design in some way, which I didn’t include in this list, but I mean, come on, Target!

To make matters even worse, some of the shirt designs that include the lesser represented flags on their own are repeats of each other; the single lesbian flag T-shirt is just a copy and paste of the other shirt designs with no unique thought put into it. They do have an exclusively transgender collection of nine pieces included in the list above, and they also have pronoun shirts as well, but the pronoun shirts only really make sense for people who use every mainstream pronoun (he/she/they) as their pronouns. Honestly, even with the crazy amount of rainbow designs in comparison to the much less represented flags, the designs aren’t much to look at. A lot of them just look like someone slapped a rainbow or the gay pride flag onto an article of clothing and patted themselves on the back for a job well done.

If that’s not enough to turn you away from this Pride merch, looking at Target’s not-so-innocent history really puts this collection in the coffin where it belongs. Hornet.com’s Matt Baume wrote about how Target gave “$150,000 to a group called ‘Minnesota Forward,’ which was paying to get a wildly anti-gay candidate elected governor of the state.” As a response, Target claimed to support “causes and candidates based strictly on issues that affect our retail and business interests.” From where I’m standing, they might as well have said “gay rights are cool and all, but what’s even COOLER is donating to a homophobe who will make us even more money!” There’s also an article on huffpost.com that seconds a lot of Baume’s findings, and I highly recommend reading through both articles to gather a more detailed history of Target’s anti-LGBTQ+ past. If Target was to take my advice, I’d tell them to make more well-thought-out designs that represent more than just gay men if they want to cover up their past and make up for successfully profiting off of the people they hurt.

Converse: 5/10

Looking through Converse’s Pride merch was a breath of fresh air after Target’s fiasco of a line. My personal favorite of the 10 pieces is the Pride Chuck Taylor All Star design with its gorgeous colors, capped off with a rainbow sole. Still, even with Converse’s incredible designs, I can’t quite give them my stamp of approval. As I write this article, all I see are nine rainbow designs and one design that incorporates gender expression, and it leaves me wanting more inclusion within their main line. I do remember them having a customizable shoe option that was a lot more inclusive that, for some reason, I can’t find anymore, which is weird since it’s still June as I write this, but it’s still not enough.

I also have to point out how their cheapest item is a tank top for $20.00, and their most expensive item is the Pride Run Star Hike shoe for a whopping $115.00. Yikes. It would be one thing if they were clearly donating to LGBTQ+ organizations, but I personally couldn’t find solid proof that any of the money from this collection will benefit the LGBTQ+ community in any way. All I came across in my research was a statement on their website claiming their company benefits the following partners: It Gets Better Project, Ali Forney Center, BAGLY and OUT Metrowest.

I’m not fully sold since there’s no proof beyond this as to how they are contributing to these so-called partners. Altpress.com released an article from 2019 that shared tweets with similar concerns: “They’re $80 and no mention of an LGBT charity initiative which feels… kind of exploitative and gross? Hopefully there is one, and I’m just not seeing it?” If Converse is actually benefiting these partners beyond simply including them on the website, they need to make the data more public going forward. Until then, I’m going to have to put the “performative activism” stamp on this one.

Hot Topic: 7.5/10

Hot Topic’s Pride collection is my favorite of the larger companies I’ve seen. The Rainbow Stripe Fanny Pack is a personal favorite of mine — so cute! There are 1,521 Pride merch results on the Hot Topic website, and I’ll admit that I didn’t calculate the rainbow to non-rainbow design ratio this time around. From my browsing, it seems to be mostly rainbow like the other collections, but there’s definitely a much wider variety of Pride designs that incorporate the lesbian, pansexual, bisexual, asexual, transgender and nonbinary flags.

Some of the designs are, however, and excuse my French, cringey as s—. The Sis Not Cis shirt gives me “YAAAAS QUEEN SLAY” performative allyship vibes. I quite literally laughed my ass off at the ridiculousness of this particular shirt. These designs, among others, make me think a straight woman who wants a gay best friend more than anything in the world was behind this work. Still, there is also a lot of really great stuff here.

Hot Topic’s HERE shirt’s net proceeds will be going toward The Trevor Project’s “mission to provide mental health and suicide services to LGBTQ+ youth” as described on Hot Topic’s Facebook page. I’m personally not a fan of the simplistic design and would’ve appreciated a more creative shirt, but it really does make me happy to see Hot Topic donate to such a great organization. Of course, we can’t ignore that out of the 1,521 pieces of Pride merch, most proceeds don’t go toward LGBTQ+ charities, so I hope Hot Topic continues to donate with future collections.

What Can I Do?

Have you ever heard the phrase “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism”? It can be really hard to get around that when seemingly so many companies are causing harm in one way or another. I’m personally not going to suggest always shopping from smaller businesses, or to conduct a research study on every single company you want to buy from, because I know that’s unfortunately just not realistic. What I will suggest is to look into buying Pride merch actually made by people in the LGBTQ+ community and/or that donate to LGBTQ+ organizations. They’re out there! If you want to celebrate Pride with some gear, celebrate it right by making ethical choices in regards to which Pride collections you put your money toward. With that, as you fill up your cart remember that wearing a rainbow isn’t enough. Take June, and the other 11 months, to think about what you can do in your position to make this world a better place for people who are LGBTQ+ to live as they authentically are.

Writer Profile

Julianna Brenner

Michigan State University
Double Majoring in Euphonium Performance and Music Education; Double Minoring in Nonfiction Creative Writing and LGBTQ+ Studies

Jayar Brenner is a junior at Michigan State University, and his passions lie in music, education, activism and writing. He is especially proud of his work through the Spartan Marching Band as a member of the uniform team, his brotherhood through Kappa Kappa Psi, and his volunteer work through the Tuba-Euphonium Social Justice Initiative.

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